Uncertainty’s Birthday

Today it is 87 years ago that German physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote a letter to fellow scientist Wolfgang Pauli describing his Uncertainty Principle – the principle in Quantum Theory that you can measure an electron’s position or its speed, but not at the same time: one of these, position or speed, will necessarily remain uncertain. In my book Science: a Discovery in Comics I included it like this:

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has spawned many jokes in theoretic physicists – maybe you’ve seen Sheldon referencing it on the Big Bang Theory! Here are a few good ones:

A quantum physicist is stopped on the highway by a police officer who asks “Do you know how fast you were going, sir?”, to which the physicist responds, “No, but I know exactly where I am!”.

Have you heard of the Heisenbergmobile? It was a big flop. As soon as you looked at the speedometer, you got lost.

Why are quantum physicists a disaster in bed? They either have the position, but can’t find the momentum – or they have the momentum, but can’t find the position!

Cartoonist Aaron Diaz made this brilliant cartoon in 2005, commenting on Heisenberg’s relationship with the nazi-scientists:

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle caused the famous though experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat – the cat in a box with radioactive poison who lives in exactly such an Uncertainty State. In 1997, when I was working on my thesis on Religion and Science, I drew this:

Unfortunately, the comic never got continued. Although you can never be certain if it won’t be, some day in the future…